This is the fourth in the series of summaries from SPEAKING OF DYING: RECOVERING THE CHURCH’S VOICE IN THE FACE OF DEATH, Fred Craddock, Dale Goldsmith, and Joy V. Goldsmith. This from the chapter: WHAT DO YOU SAY TO SOMEONE WHO IS DYING? 

  • Where and when do we in the church talk about dying?
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 – a word of comfort for the dying. “Encourage one another with these words.”
  • Jesus is the Word – he communicated in words and these words were preserved in the New Testament which was distributed as Holy Writ. He sanctified words and gave them special meanings which were treasured by all who read them. His use of language differs from medical language, popular language, philosophical language, and psychological language.
  • How not to communicate with the dying: 1. Denial – Peter. 2. Failure to be present – Peter, James and John in Gethsemane. 3. Change the Subject – the mother of James and John. 

What the Dying Might Want to Say. The Seven Last Words of Christ:

  1. Lament (Matt.27:46): My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 22. When we make so little room in liturgy for lament, then in their hurt and their anger and their sense of absurdity, sufferers think they sit alone in the congregation.
  2. Forgive (Luke 23:34): “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” The dying want to resolve outstanding grievances and heal broken relationships. The need for resolution of problems.
  3. Offer Hope (Luke 23:43): “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus continued his ministry in the midst of his own dying by promising hope to the repentant criminal.
  4. Express Physical Needs (John 19:28): “I am thirsty.” Jesus had physical needs and did not hesitate to express them.
  5. Address the Needs of Others (John 19:26,27): “Woman, here is your son…. Here is your mother.” Jesus takes care of business as a son and as a friend. Jesus never stopped thinking of others.
  6. Commit the Self to God (Luke 23.46): “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” His final thought is a final reconciliation that death is near and as a final decision to entrust himself and whatever awaits him to god the Father. This is the ultimate word of faith.
  7. Accept the End (John 19:30): “It is finished.” These are the words of human suffering and of the conclusion of a life’s work. This is a statement about completion, resolution and acceptance.

This is the real language of a real person experiencing real dying. He has things to say that are helpful. Can we, when we die, speak helpfully to others? If so, what could we say?

  • Christian Use of Language. We use the language of what God has done and how we have experienced it. It is the language of the concrete specifics of God’s grace. The dying Christian can better respond to the promise of God’s grace and the awe of God’s holiness than have nothing to say when identifying his understanding of God. Christian language is a confident one, even when speaking of dying. We may need terminology that expresses truths and realities that the language of our secular world, our medical establishment, or our cultural environment is unable to provide, simply because we are talking about things that God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ. What we believe is in many ways countercultural and different from modern American culture. Our language refers to the reality of all human experience.

Christians’ Powerful Vocabulary: Seven Examples

  1. Creation. We are creatures, made by God for a purpose as servants, conditional, transitory not in charge of anything.
  2. Eschatology. Meaning, purpose, goal and end.
  3. Forgiveness. One of the fundamental characteristics of God who reveals himself to us. It liberates us from getting even. In dying we deal with unsettled relationships and unresolved disputes.
  4. Grace. This can be a powerful gift that the dying can dispense. Grace is a resource for the dying because it is the infinite capacity of God to do the right thing for us.
  5. Sin. Missing the mark, failing at what God created us for – the human condition. Sin may capture the sense of exactly what it is that a dying person needs to get rid of. The pain and uncertainties present at the end of life need to be addressed.
  6. Gospel. Good news: Revelation 14:13 “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” They will rest from their labors, their work in done, and their deeds are neither forgotten nor lost.
  7. Resurrection. There is no innate immortality – only God is immortal. Only God can raise the dead and create a new life, a new heavens and a new earth and new bodies. There is victory over death in Christ.

These seven words affirm and clarify ways and content of Christian talk in end-of-life situations. 

Discussion Questions

  1. If you feel awkward conversing with someone you know to have a terminal illness, why do you think that you feel that way?
  2. If you were facing death from a terminal illness, how would you like others to treat you?
  3. If you knew you were soon to die what questions would you want to have answered? Are these questions that you would be afraid to ask? Who do you think could answer them for you?
  4. Which of the Seven Last Words of Christ are of most comfort to you?
  5. Many people who are dying retreat inwardly and stop communicating. This is difficult for those around them. How can you deal with this situation?